It’s amazing the difference a little execution can make.
Hampered by mental mistakes throughout the season, Clemson limped into Raleigh with three straight losses and a lifetime worth of close games already under their belts. Their self-inflicted wounds had many wondering how the Tigers would react.
Only the most pessimistic of souls can find fault in how the Tigers responded.
After punting on its first two possessions and catching a break when State missed a field goal on their second, the Tigers put together four consecutive touchdown drives that averaged seven plays and 74 yards. What seemed to be the beginnings of another close game quickly turned into a rout.
In the process Clemson finally shook the Thursday night ESPN monkey and gained a much needed confidence boost.
Thursday night’s game plan was a thing of beauty. Rob Spence neutralized State’s aggressiveness and speed by using traps and play action passes that kept defenders guessing all night.
Spence’s commitment to the running game continued, as was evidenced on first down. Minus plays on which they took a knee to run out the clock, 23 of Clemson’s first-down calls were runs. They averaged 5.57 yards on those attempts, of which 13 of them went for four or more yards.
Charlie Whitehurst attempted just eight passes on first down, but he averaged 11.5 yards and had only one incompletion. It goes without saying that Clemson’s success on first down set the tone for the night.
The biggest story was that of James Davis. The freshman had 11 first half carries for 139 yards and two touchdowns as he turned in the fifth best performance for a first-year Clemson player despite missing all but one play of the second half. He racked up six runs of at least 10 yards with a long of 30.
Many picked Davis as the team’s offensive player of the game but that award should go to the entire offensive line. It was their outstanding performance against a front many rank as tops in the country that allowed Davis and the other skill players to have so much success.
Consider that they did not give up a sack in 31 passing attempts and allowed just five tackles for loss. The Wolfpack had averaged 14.75 tackles for loss per game and had notched no less than 11 in any contest. The offense also had seven plays of 21 or more yards and eight runs that went for at least 12 yards.
Whitehurst completed 71% of his passes against a defense that had held opponents to a 40% completion rate. That number would have been closer to 80% had Chansi Stuckey not dropped two very catchable balls, the latter of which resulted in an interception.
Charlie did a good job of finding open receivers and putting the ball where it had to go. The screen pass that was nearly intercepted early in the game was the only pass the defense had a legitimate shot of snagging.
He hooked up with seven different receivers with the most popular being Stuckey (8-103) and Aaron Kelly (5-81). There’s no doubt Stuckey had some very big plays, but he also left a little something on the field. His two drops were huge and there were a couple of times he looked timid after the catch.
Kelly had big catch on second-and-long and another on third-and-10. He continues to impress with his yards after the catch despite his unimposing frame. He’s the type of player that needs to be more involved in the offense.
Overall, Clemson’s 487 yards were their best output since a trip to Columbia two years ago. Their balanced attack – 244 passing and 243 rushing – is exactly what Bowden has been searching for the last couple of years.
It took a personnel change or two and a deviation in scheme, but Vic Koenning finally got his defense to perform.
The defensive coordinator used a lot of 3-3-5 defense, especially in the second half, in route to practically shutting down the State offense. Their lone touchdown drive came after a horrendous roughing the kicker call prolonged a drive. Their only other points came on a field goal after starting the dive at the Clemson 20-yard line.
The defensive effort was all that more impressive when you consider State’s average starting field position was their own 44-yard line and one-third of their drives started in Clemson territory.
The new look on defense appeared to confuse State quarterback Jay Davis at times. He and backup Marcus Stone completed just 19 of their 36 attempts.
Having an extra defensive back on the field helped Clemson plug some of the holes that had gutted their zone defense in previous weeks. State’s west coast style of offense could never get on track because their short passing game was well covered and Clemson was more than effective against the run.
Michael Hamlin looked comfortable in his new role as starting cat safety. He’s still learning and mistakes will occur, but it was more than evident that he’s more instinctive than C.J. Gaddis. He’s also is a much better tackler.
All told there were at least nine different freshmen who played on defense, many of which are starting to log more and more time. Antonio Clay was on the field much more than in the past, but that’s probably because the staff feels his coverage skills are better than those of David Dunham.
Haydrian Lewis continues to be in the rotation at corner and looks better each week. He’s very physical for a young defensive back and has made a handful of exceptional plays against the run.
Although late in the game, Phillip Merling notched another sack as he continues to garner more playing time. He has quietly become one of the best first-year players on the team.
Tackling continues to be an issue for Clemson even though it wasn’t as bad as it has been. Darrell Blackman should have been stopped for little or no gain on his 20-yard touchdown run and there were a number of other instances where State gained chunks of yardage after initial contact.
The most significant improvement was in getting off the field. State was only 4-of-15 in third-down situations and 0-for-3 on fourth-down attempts.
Clemson limited State to just 140 yards in the first half, which isn’t bad considering James Davis had 139 on his own. Anthony Waters added four more tackles for loss to his resume and Duane Coleman was credited with his first sack of the season.
There’s still a lot to work on and the Tigers definitely need to be more physical, especially up front, but you can’t say too many bad things about a defense that gives up 10 points.
That’s the word that best describes Clemson special teams’ performance. The problem is where you start discussing just how bad it was. It’s probably best to pick on the kickoff coverage unit first because they have been the most consistent when it comes to performing poorly.
State could have practically chosen any player on the team to return kicks Thursday night and it wouldn’t have mattered. Darrell Blackman had three returns for 161 yards as they averaged 43.50 yards on four returns. There return game was their best offense.
Covering kickoffs isn’t rocket science. You run down field like you were shot out of a cannon, get off blocks, and converge on the ball, which requires a little size, speed, and a lot of attitude.
The punting unit has gone down the drain. They gave up their third block of the year and averaged just 26.7 yards. Many fans have grown weary of the scheme. Again, it’s a matter of execution more than anything.
It’s no secret that the best way to attack is through C-gap. You have someone come hard on the rush aiming at the outside edge of the personal protectors. The hope is the outside rusher will either draw the protectors to him and open up the middle or they’ll get sucked into the middle and create a short corner for the C-gap rusher.
Each of those scenarios requires one of the blockers to be out of position, meaning the rush unit is banking on poor execution. That’s what’s led to all three blocks this season.
The scheme is fine. It’s actually one of the better ones out there in terms of coverage. It gives a high number of players a chance to get downfield quickly, thus limiting the number of return yards. Of course, you still have to maintain your lanes and make tackles.
Jad Dean finally missed what should have been a gimmie field goal. Kickers aren’t perfect and he’s no exception. His still having a great year up to this point and a miss was to be expected. What would be best for him and the team would be to work on getting the ball out of the end zone on all kickoffs.
It’s a rare occurrence for a team to lose the special teams battle by such a wide margin and still win the game, much less win big. Clemson was lucky they weren’t hurt worse by their poor performance.
It was a good victory. The offense and defense finally clicked while managing to cut out the dumb stuff. There were still a few unforced errors like a false start near the goal line and dropped passes, but the Tigers didn’t let those put them in holes like they have much of the season.
The offense had a ton of success on third down (8-of-15) while the defense finally managed to close out drives when they needed. Clemson once again won the turnover and time of possession battles while surpassing the 200-yard mark on the ground. I don’t think Tommy Bowden has lost a game at Clemson when doing all three.
The staff continues to play a lot of young players on both sides of the ball regardless of the situation. That bodes well for the late season games when depth could be an issue but, more importantly, it shows a lot of promise for the years to come. Getting a much needed win on the road will only help the maturation process.
The Tigers had two options going into the game – fight or give up. They had every reason to do the latter after three consecutive heartbreaking loses. Instead, they chose to fight once again in hopes of making a late season surge that will put them in line for a decent record and bowl game.
The ride is half over at this point. It’s been one hell of a trip so far, complete with all sorts of twists and turns, ups and downs. If Thursday night was any indication, the second half is going to be one you won’t want to miss.